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Review: To Get Into Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Drop All Your Expectations

While Kendrick Lamar pulling from the past for To Pimp A Butterfly is hard to digest for some, it's ultimately what makes the LP a "classic" candidate.

Kendrick Lamar's deviation from the norm and pulling from the past may be off-putting for some, but it's ultimately what'll elevate To Pimp A Butterfly's "classic" candidacy.

Before we start talking about anything, wipe your mind clean of whatever Kendrick Lamar you think you know. Un-feel the wave of chills from his good kid, M.A.A.D city—fraught with its barbed lyrics and frantic professions against an orchestra of beats—as it described a youth coming up in Compton to a tee. Disregard the spitter that (respectfully) smoked every compadre standing beside him during TDE's 2013 BET Honors cypher. Ignore the man whose name was tatted on tongues for months following the annihilation that was his guest verse on Big Sean's "Control." Forget everything you thought you knew about that Kendrick Lamar before approaching his left-steering musical backtrack, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Kendrick's long awaited sophomore LP arrived without warning in the wee hours of the morning, one full week ahead of its March 23 release date. Aside from the dropped bomb nature of its release—listeners up past bedtime were forced into a FOMO-driven part two of the Black Messiah listening session D'Angelo caused back in December—TPAB was an even bigger surprise than listeners were bargaining for. Instead of thumping beats and Cali-saturated soundscapes, Butterfly swaps in jazz horns and G-Funk overtones, forcing us to redefine what the sound of hip hop is right now. Based on Twitter chatter alone, the masses are split. Many professed their love for it instantly, praising its nostalgic elements and crediting it for prompting an hour-long two-step. Others voiced their desire for more of the Kendrick they felt they were robbed of. To Pimp A Butterfly may or may not be exactly what people "wanted" or "expected" to hear, but it's definitely something we needed.

Buried within the album are valuable lessons in patience and slowing down when it comes to listening to music. Existing as a minority amongst hip hop's pit of empty-caloried fast-food music, TPAB requires layered listening. Careful chewing. Savoring. Digesting. Being a lazy consumer and putting it down after one quick listen leads to missing all the assorted flavors present on the plate. Like the conversation starters present on the fiery and militant "The Blacker The Berry" and introspective "Complexion." The diversity of funk and soul samples like Boris Gardiner's "Every N***** Is A Star" for "Wesley's Theory," "Momma" borrowing Lalah Hathaway's "On Your Own" and The Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady" for "i." The spoken word pieces scattered throughout, manifested as a cheeky "For Free?" interlude, a soapbox speech in the middle of an "i" performance and during a wide-eyed interview with immortal rap royalty on "Mortal Man." Butterfly shouldn't be rushed through in search of a song to blast at ig'nant levels in the car (although "King Kunta" and "Alright" are strong contenders). There's just too much to marinate on.

In addition to Kendrick's consistent lyrical acrobatics and detailed taletelling methods (a must listen for this is "How Much A Dollar Cost"), Butterfly's biggest strength lies in its feels. It's an ambience album full of aural color and emotional depth. K. Dot, his production crew (our hats are tipped to Flying Lotus, Sounwave, Terrace Martin and Thundercat) and his perked ears for musicality use sophisticated instrumentation and meticulous sonics to create surround sound moods. Take the groovy yet sensual "These Walls." The intimacy is palpable with its exasperated moans, wailing wind instruments, deep melodies and free styling electric keys. The tenor coos, faint scatting horns, drowsy background vocals and driving percussion of the upbeat "Alright" sends the body into a state of celebratory release without so much as having to think about it.

The album's not all sweet smiles and uplifting moments, though. It gets dark. On Butterfly, Kendrick treads into the side of his mind that depression once clouded. Hearing the painfully descriptive "u" is reminiscent to feeling an old wound slowly open up again. "Where's your antennas, where is the influence you speak of?" he sobs, harsh words slurring between glass clinks and audible gulps of liquor. "You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her/I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' failure you ain't no leader/I never liked you, forever despise you I don't need you." During the self-deprecation session, he's cooped up in a hotel room gasping with the kind of breathlessness that comes after a long cry when the body is tired of tears but the heart isn't.

The beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly being the followup to good kid, M.A.A.D city is that they're more alike than you think. Sonically, Kendrick continues to utilize the voices on his album for more than just the verses. In both albums, he builds each song from the ground level up, using voices primarily as colors and instruments (Rapsody lends the only guest verse on the new project). On Butterfly, Anna Wise, Bilal, James Fauntleroy, Taz Arnold aka Ti$a and others paint the rich blues, purples and blacks on the backgrounds of his songs, setting the deep tone. The same goes for his own vocal chords. At times it's tough and gravely (for both "Backseat Freestyle" and "The Blacker The Berry," and at others it's in a higher register, nymphy and introspective (for both "Swimming Pools" and the "For Sale?" interlude).

Although the sonic differences are immediately audible decade-wise, he hasn't compromised the complexity of his storytelling on Butterfly. good kid, M.A.A.D city was a concept album showing us what a single day in the crazy city of Compton looked like from behind his eyes, from harmless shenanigans with the homies and hating his grandfather's alcoholism to witnessing the shooting death of a friend and feeling the need to sing about those who have passed. In To Pimp A Butterfly, the themes are more broad but still touch on the things that Kendrick has absorbed during his matriculation through life. He speaks on the dynamic that he has with society both as a celebrity and as a black man. The hate and skewed relationships he's experienced during his ascent. The tough love and encouragement he gives back to his community whenever he can. Inner battles between pride and accountability when it comes to racial identity and creativity. Picking apart and appreciating the different quirks of the black experience.

Within months of its release, good kid, M.A.A.D city was quickly stamped a classic and, for the most part, it was undisputed. It's far too early to dole out such weighty accolades for To Pimp A Butterfly, but only a fool would profess that it isn't an important piece of work, especially for our time. For some, it'll be hard to appreciate Butterfly for what it is because, unfortunately, pointless inquiries like "Where's old Kendrick?" are still being thrown into the discussion. Not bothering to look beyond the rapper to see the artist expanding his craft and paving the way for others to do the same. Seeing these sonic alterations as shortcomings instead of the path to evolving into something even greater. Someone potentially legendary. Judging by the title and the poems stitched throughout the LP, all Kendrick wants to do is stretch the wings that have been cramped up under him for a while. Guys, the good kid is clearly a man now. Let him grow. —Stacy-Ann Ellis

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Danny Brown’s Legacy Is No Joke, 'uknowhatimsayin¿'

“Ain't no pretend, ain't tryna make amends / Just tryna keep my legacy, I'm legend in the end,” Danny Brown raps on “Change Up,” the desolate opening track to his new album uknowhatimsayin¿. Danny Brown has been one of the most consistently great rappers this decade, his adventurous ear and gonzo humor spread across four full-lengths and numerous features. His latest album solidifies that legacy by reviewing familiar themes with a fresh approach.

The Detroit artist’s sound has continually evolved to match the concept of each album, and he points to deceased art-rock god David Bowie as an example. After plunging into the industrial goth abyss on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, the concept for his latest project uknowhatimsayin¿ is no concept. (Which in Bowie terms would mean it’s his Tonight, I guess?) “Is the music good or not? You don’t need to put the tracklist backwards or anything, you know what I’m sayin?” the Detroit rapper recently told Pigeons & Planes. “Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes.”

Danny has referred to uknowhatimsayin¿ as “his version of a stand-up comedy album.” Of course, he’s always been funny in his verses. (His breakout project XXX, where he boasts about literally shitting on your mixtape, “wipe with the credits, leave stains on the jewel case,” was just ranked among the 100 best albums of the decade by Pitchfork.) But previously the jokes were there to lighten up the horror of his hardscrabble situations. Now the ratio has flipped, like he’s looking back on his life through the Get-A-Load Of This Guy Cam. There’s an adage from mid-century comedian Steve Allen that comedy is “tragedy plus time;” perhaps, after years as an internationally touring rapper, he feels far enough removed to look at tragic circumstances in a new light.

Hence lead single “Dirty Laundry.” It’s a no-hook compendium of some of Danny’s scummiest moments from back when his main concern was selling drugs without violating his parole. He can afford a prostitute but not a room, so they meet in a Burger King bathroom like Humpty Hump. He turns detergent brands into gun talk with “High Tide, Gain off of Arm & Hammer.”

The literal and metaphorical interpretations of the title interlock in the final verse, where he pays a stripper for sex with change he had left over from the laundromat and spots her doing laundry the very next morning. It’s the sort of free-associative thrill ride Robin Williams used to specialize in, especially while under the influence of the powders Danny used to traffic. It might not all be true, but he’s not lying. It’s not a joke, but it’s funny as hell.

“Belly of the Beast” is from a separate routine entirely. Longtime producer Paul White creates a barely-there beat out of pinging bass notes and vocal sighs. Nigerian singer Obongjayar offers a yearning chorus in his gravelly voice: “They can’t contain me, I’m free / it feels like losing your mind.” The overall effect is like a glimpse of some unknown netherworld beyond human comprehension, like the best psychedelic trip imaginable, and the punchline is Danny’s verses are down-to-earth sex talk. “If it smell like syrup, you gon’ get this work,” he says, “but if it smell like perch, gotta disperse.” And that’s after he brags “Hoes on my dick ‘cuz I look like Roy Orbison.”

To be clear, Danny’s not only focused on sex. He tries out other hip-hop tropes on this record, like a stand-up finding new ways to joke about dating or airplane food. “Savage Nomad” is a flashback to childhood, fighting on the playground after school and stealing the scales from chemistry class for unsanctioned extracurriculars. He references Minnie Riperton and Eric B. & Rakim in the same verse, despite sounding the polar opposite of those artists’ smoothness over rigid hi-hats and squealing guitar. To rhyme it with “impotent” and “licorice,” the rapper bends “LinkedIn” into three syllables. It’s a reference to a podcast, sure, but it also sounds like how a kid might mispronounce a social media site he has no business being on.

“Theme Song” is a diss track. Danny is demanding respect from a new class of rappers ripping off his outlandish style and getting rich, instead of losing a label deal like he did. If he has a specific rapper in mind, it’s too tricky to pin down, but pity anyone whose music is compared to disgraced pastor “Bishop Eddie Long with a thong on.” A$AP Ferg bellows affirmations in the background, like a hypeman chiming in via FaceTime.

Only two other rappers appear on uknowhatimsayin¿, and they’re veterans like Danny himself. Run The Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, appear on posse cut “3 Tearz” to boast about not caring about anything and illuminate the pasts that brought them there. Danny fakes being a crack user so he doesn’t get caught selling in the wrong territory, while El hosts Death on his couch and stalls him with jokes. Like their last collaboration, it’s steep competition, but Killer Mike gets the best line, capping the track with “Win in the end like Tina did goddamn Ike.”

Other luminaries are lurking in the album credits. Dev Hynes of Blood Orange sings the chorus of “Shine,” his airy voice a natural counterpoint to Danny’s yelp. Aggro rising star JPEGMAFIA pops up twice, providing the loping beat for “3 Tearz” and a breathy, Pharrell-esque hook on “Negro Spiritual.” Flying Lotus and Thundercat supply the frantic beat for the latter track, which feels like riding in a car swerving across every lane.

The biggest name attached to the album is executive producer Q-Tip. Though he only produced a few beats for the album himself, all three continue the loose, funky sound explored on the last A Tribe Called Quest record. In particular, Tip shows how to color outside the lines with the chords on “Best Life,” a shoo-in for feel-good rap song of the year. Most importantly, Danny credits the Tribe mastermind with pushing for a simplified sound, requiring him to “damn near relearn how to rap.” Q-Tip may have only been behind the boards for three tracks, but his influence is felt across the record. It’s easy to imagine him lending his ear to other middle-aged rappers in need of a way forward, but Tip is likely too bombastic of a talent to settle into being a background figure forever.

After anticipating trends like pills, EDM beats, and mall goth chic, Danny Brown has sidestepped them entirely on uknowhatimsayin¿. He’s re-focused on spitting memorable verses over hard beats, and as a result, created one of 2019’s best rap albums. It’s replayable with its 33-minute runtime, and the psychedelic beats ensure there’s something new to notice with each spin. Like the best stand-up specials, the album is meant to be passed among friends, choice passages memorized and referenced ad nauseam. As long as there are fans guffawing as their heads knock, rest assured, Danny Brown’s legacy is secured.

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Raphael Saadiq poses for a portrait during the BET Awards 2019 at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Bennett Raglin

Raphael Saadiq Dissects Addiction From All Angles On 'Jimmy Lee'

Near the end of Raphael Saadiq's Jimmy Lee—the producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist's fifth solo album, and his first in eight years—comes the musical and thematic moment that's perhaps the most honest but most opaque on an album largely defined by pulled-back armor and exposed exteroceptors. This transparent yet dishonest climax comes in the form of "Rikers Island Redux," a spoken word performance delivered by actor Daniel J. Watts with slam poetry defiance—it's outward-pointing at things too large to get a hand on, full of defensive aggrandizement and self-satisfied puns. "We got the same glass ceiling but I'm supposed to be thankful for my sunroof/ And massah's still trying to trick himself into believing he picked the cotton, too" he decries while comparing himself and us/we (Black people) to Malcolm X, MLK, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Optimus Prime. "It's complex how being born with this complexion ups the likelihood of dying in a prison complex/ And orange ain't the new black/ Black is the same-same black/ But this ain't just for Black folks," he continues as if this is an album about racism when it isn't. Even if it is.

Jimmy Lee is primarily about Jimmy Lee Baker, Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose in the 1990s, and secondarily about Jimmy Lee as us. "It's not a homage record; it's just a hashtag to Jimmy," the singer shared before the album's release. And in the same way that hashtags of Black victims of police violence encapsulate feelings of pain and loss that transcend the names of the fallen, Jimmy Lee is incredibly more expansive than its 39-minute running time. For the most part, Raphael Saadiq's albums have never been long affairs (his solo debut, Instant Vintage was 76 minutes, but 2002's Ray Ray was 49 minutes; they've basically grown slightly short since) and they have almost always had music and sound as the central conceit. Yet here, Saadiq doesn't mine music history as much as he digs, for the first time as an artist, into the specifics of his personal story. Including Jimmy Lee, he's lost four of his siblings to a mix of violence, drugs, suicide, and police activity—and all of those subjects are present on this record; if not as direct touchstones, then just as the contours that provide the acoustics to hope and despair and entrapment. On "Rearview," the album's closer, Kendrick Lamar asks, "How can I save the world, stuck in this box?" and it's not clear whether the box is literal or metaphorical, self-constructed or an ensnarement by one of the many manifestations of society as an antagonist to Black lives.

"Rearview" is interesting because it features perhaps the greatest rapper living, but he's not credited as a cameo, and he's not quite rapping; he's more of a floating echo of a conscious. The song interpolates a piano riff from Bobby Ellis and The Desmond Miles Seven's "Step Softly," which was famously used on Ol Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo"—and ODB remains hip-hop's most iconic addiction tragedy. Rikers Island is not just the place where the Wu-Tang Clan once performed while their member was an inmate, it's also the name of the two songs preceding "Rearview," including the one where Watts, a guy maybe best known as an ex-convict on Tracy Morgan's The Last O.G., railed against the prison industrial complex and the unseen thoroughfares that fill it with Black bodies.

This may seem like wiredrawing, but it's not in the context of an album that primarily centers on dealing with drug addiction. Jimmy Lee pulls its greatest strengths from subconscious connections because to be an addict is to be a magician, an assassin, and a poet all at once. To say that to be an addict is to be a liar is to absolve and ignore that we are all liars, both to ourselves and to others. To put addiction in terms of the upfront costs that an addict thinks about (the price of acquiring the vice) ignores the collateral taxes of the masks and perfumes used to cover our tracks, and—ultimately—the tolls of severed relationships, broken families, missed opportunities, hurt people left behind.

The album opens with "Sinners Prayer," a needle-point recollection of a police state ("Eight millimeters/ And microscopes/ Fingers on the triggers/ Aimed at my dome") that quickly morphs into a call for divine assistance: "Hope the Most High/ Can see my heart is/ In the right place/ My hands are folded/ My knees are bending." The opposing forces here are disembodied—the police are never mentioned with distinction and the narrator is arguing with his partner about money: "We ain't got none/ Our baby daughter/ May not see five." It's not important why they're broke; it's not important what ails their child. What's important is the sense of despondency that leads to prayer: "This kind of hurt can't be/ Be justified."

What's even more important is that by the next song, "So Ready," Jimmy Lee as us has been failed by God and is damaging his lover and best friend by damaging himself: "I never come home at night/ And you stay by my side/ But then I broke your heart/ I went too far/ I'm still out here living wrong/ The drugs were too strong." One track later, on "This World is Mad," we're stuck facing the behind-the-back jeers of one's family and extended family of community—"Trying to be a king/ When everyone around him/ Sees the clown and/ They're laughing at him." At this point, Jimmy Lee begins to get grand and paranoid, but no longer told from the first person (if only for a moment), as if Raphael needs to see the best in his brother, but also can’t directly handle the psychic weight of fully stepping into the shoes of the dead. He's not quite making excuses and rationalizations for the main character but he does start to blame outside forces more directly—"This world is drunk and the people are mad"—while getting more metaphoric, even as he goes into detail: "He's always in three places/ Spaces undefined/Heart is always racing/ For something he will never find." Here, the album begins to present itself as Raphael Saadiq's best album that's also the hardest to listen to.

 

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Celebrating Jimmy Lee's Born Day, the love will never change. #JimmyLee #thefunniestever #puppiesforgifts #thoughtfulman #thedude #jjdad

A post shared by Raphael Saadiq (@raphael_saadiq) on Aug 31, 2019 at 9:53am PDT

The music is as accomplished and confidently unshowy as one would expect from the man who was indispensable to songs like D'Angelo's lustful "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," albums like Solange's A Seat At The Table, the music of new jack soul pioneers Tony! Toni! Toné!—who always balanced themes of family and relational intimacy, as well as the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl—which focused almost solely on romantic love. With every song produced or co-produced by Saadiq, Jimmy Lee is sonically defined by low chords, space-giving drums, and rock guitars—dark sounds for dark matters. It's slow-fever blues and desperate gospel that shifts from longing for redemption to turning inward because that's how addiction works. But it’s not all one-note. Jimmy Lee showcases a depth of references, as Saadiq plunges into the DNA of the styles that have influenced him over his three decades of making professional music—leaning on, reimagining, and stripping down material from sources including electronic music to nu-wave pop to emerge with exposed nerves that feel organically cohesive as a body.

The sounds work as a backdrop for these subjects because it feels like the play of opposites of addiction—bouncing lows and soaring highs, smooth descents into jagged edges, hard-earned climbs into transcendence. “And as random as I sound/ I still manage to hold it down,” Saadiq sings on “I’m Feeling Love,” the album’s most straight-forward R&B number that, like D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” is a love song about a vice. On “My Walk,” he’s a firebrand rasping from the pulpit and taking it to the streets with a martial bop that topically references the talent shows, saxophones, and betrayal on his way to becoming a full-fledged musician: “Very next morning I had a horn in my hand/ I thought I was in the Southern Marching Band/ I love Jimmy, but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn/ Jimmy shot heroin and he was my momma's son.” The song ends abruptly shortly thereafter and the next song, “Belongs to God,” feels like a redemptive moment of church blues handled by Rev. Elijah Baker Sr.—it’s actually a slight remake of the gospel singer’s 2017 song, “My Body Belongs to God.” Again, Saadiq steps back as if even speaking from the abyss of his brother’s pain is too much for him. But the album has already shown us that the pull of addiction was too strong for Jimmy Lee to be saved by God’s hands.

Because to be an addict is to be cop, killer, and judge to one's self. It's to occupy the roles of warden, jailor, and inmate (he's always in three places). To be an addict is to feel like a time traveler frozen in a moment that you are not sure you want to get out of, even if you can. "Even when I'm clean/ I'm still a dope fiend," our narrator says on "Kings Fall." It's the album's fifth song, the one after "Something Keeps Calling," where he sings "I feel the burdens on me/ Something keeps calling me/ This is so heavy for me." Yes, he detoured into the second-person on "The World is Drunk," but he put Jimmy Lee as us back in our own body because addiction is a reversal of gazes. Most people blame others in public and ourselves in quiet times, but addiction makes us blame ourselves and only slightly looking out at the world as a cause of our afflictions at our most denying lows. And that's perhaps what makes the closing suite of songs both honest and dishonest.

"Rikers Island Redux" is a coda to the song before it, "Rikers Island," which has a choir (which is actually a multi-tracked version of Saadiq himself) singing that there are "too many niggas in Rikers Island/Why must it be?" It feels like that last big statement Saadiq wants made before he takes the album out, but it's also the one he has been subtly making all along. Drug addiction cannot be separated from the pipe to prison pipeline, nor can the prison industrial complex be separated from slavery, any more than an addict can be separated from the failures of a society. It's no mistake that Jimmy Lee begins with persecution, financial distress, and being alienated from community. So, yes, as Watts claims, "this ain't just for Black folks." But, no, it is.

Jimmy Lee is about the particular forces that viewed the crack epidemic as a commerce center for incarceration but see opioid addiction as a disease to be treated. It's about the law enforcement policies and a legal system that created New York's inordinately punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws while hitting Johnson & Johnson—a company with over $80 billion in yearly revenue—with a relatively paltry $572 million fine for its role in Oklahoma's opioid crisis. The Notorious B.I.G. once claimed that he "sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson," but that's an unabashed lie that tells the truth about how desires and capitalism and racism swirl on themselves, like an ouroboros that eats but never gets full, dancing on its own greed and hate, feeding us sadness and truth and escape, as if anything can ever break a cycle that begins with the individual but cannot be divorced from a society that can only maintain its fullness by making us all hungry for… something.

These ideas repeat themselves like a vicious groundhog day, revealing meaning and connections while the themes bubble from unspoken knowing into pointed lyricism the same way an addict can tell a story that says so much about human truth when they're lying to cover their tracks, both figurative and literal. It's the way that 39 minutes seem so much longer; the way a hashtag says so much more than a name; the way that an addict is a magician, able to be in three places at once—talking about Jimmy Lee as a person, Jimmy Lee as us, and Jimmy Lee as the inevitable outcome of a world equation that has been built on Black labor and genius while giving us almost none of the rewards or fruits of our contributions.

On "Glory to the Veins," Raphael Saadiq admits, "There's too many people walking behind me/ I need you beside me, please come and find me/ It's been so cold/ The light could blind me." He seems to be talking about Jimmy speaking to God, but he may also be talking about himself to us, or about us talking to the world. Because he, like his brother, is able to be in three places at once.

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Megan Thee Stallion’s Southern Rap 'Fever' Dream

Hot Girl Meg is already an urban legend. You can see her on the cover of Fever, looming over a luxury auto in skin-tight leopard print as flames and horses erupt behind her. It’s the undeniable movie poster aesthetic of blaxploitation icons like Pam Grier’s Coffy. It’s a perfect fit for rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose music channels a Southern rap tradition full of larger-than-life figures like Trina, Gangsta Boo, and her hero Pimp C.

The 24-year-old born Megan Pete started rapping in childhood after accompanying her mother, Holly Thomas aka rapper Holly-Wood, to recording sessions in Houston. Megan’s career began with freestyles at college parties, and she released three mixtapes in three years with her mother as her manager, building her buzz while still completing courses. The rapper is slick and authoritative on the mic as she channels alter egos like Hot Girl Meg, who she calls “the party girl, the polished girl, the turn-up queen.” Her debut album Fever, released last week, is a showcase for this alter ego. Hanging with Hot Girl Meg makes for a fun 40 minutes.

Though her profile has risen to the level of Drake Instagrams and Khalid features, Megan Thee Stallion does not make pop music. She raps, she’s excellent, and she knows it. “I’m a real rap bi**h, this ain’t no pop sh*t,” she ad-libs victoriously on her first song “Realer.” Sure, pop music has eagerly siphoned from rap this decade, but rappers have been drawing lines in the sand since Q-Tip said “Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop” in ‘91. Nowadays, the A Tribe Called Quest auteur is still pushing rap forward as an executive producer for Fever.

“Sex Talk,” the album’s lead single, is a showcase for Megan’s bars. “I’ma bust quick if your lips soft,” she raps in short bursts around distorted bass and snaps. “Rock that ship ‘til ya blast off.” In her second verse, she accents the offbeat to boast, “I should be in museums because this body a masterpiece.” Though the song’s popularity was eclipsed by the video release for last summer’s more bombastic “Big Ole Freak,” it’s a fitting introduction to Thee Stallion: her range of staccato to elongated flows is catnip for heads like her who grew up on freestyle DVDs, paired with a blown out beat riding the minimalist wave that’s subsumed parties across the country.

Sex is the main concern in Megan Thee Stallion’s work, followed closely by money. Such confident sexuality from a black woman has unfortunately drawn criticism and retrograde questioning from some in the media, but she’s undaunted. “You let the boys come up in here and talk about how they gon’ run a train on all our friends and they want some head and they want to shoot everything up, and they want to do drugs,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Well, we should be able to go equally as hard. I don’t want to hear none of that ‘That’s offensive!’ or ‘All she talk about is p***y.’”

Megan’s mercenary demand for her pleasures is a refreshing gender swap of rap tropes. On “Running Up Freestyle,” she raps, “He say I should be nicer, well your d**k should be bigger.” She’s blunt enough to make me clutch my pearls on behalf of my gender before I burst out laughing. Later in “Sex Talk,” Megan kicks a would-be lover out when she cues up trap music and he asks “Girl, you tryna trap me?” She’s offended by the insinuation she needs to keep a captive, when she doesn’t need anyone she doesn’t want in the moment. It’s a role reversal that plenty of female rappers have executed previously, but few with the same raw skill.

“Hood Rat Sh*t” opens with a sample of a 2008 viral video, a 7-year-old explaining his desire to do “hoodrat stuff” with his friends. The uptempo drums bounce around cavernous piano chords with gleeful menace like a gaggle of unsupervised kids. Megan’s rhymes launch into double time in the lead-up to the chorus, which she spits like a playground taunt. In the third verse, she gives an evocative example of the title: she’s at the strip club drinking Henny from a champagne glass, “eating chicken wings with a thick bi**h” who’s dancing like the diamonds in her necklace. Her swaggering flow sounds like the reincarnation of Pimp C, with the tall tale verses to match.

Rising Charlotte rapper DaBaby adds a verse over bellowing 808s on “Cash Sh*t.” When Megan says “That’s my dog, he gon’ sit down and listen,” DaBaby describes fixing his partner’s weave during sex and incorporating headlocks into new positions. On its own, his verse might be too direct, like a stranger leering from the end of the bar. It’s perfectly absurd on Megan’s album. He works as a foil to the main attraction, like he’s just trying to keep up.

 

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Real HOTGIRL shit 😛

A post shared by Hot Girl Meg (@theestallion) on May 4, 2019 at 9:46am PDT

The only other guest on Fever is Juicy J on “Simon Says,” where he also supplies a beat that sounds like a house party in the middle of a home invasion. “Simon says bust it open like a freak,” Megan raps like a nursery rhyme, a fitting match for the originator of “Slob On My Knob.” The song was the center of a minor controversy over the album release weekend when singer Wolf Tyla implied she had a writing credit and drew an indignant response from Megan. The facts became harder to parse from there. Maybe Tyla wrote the hook, or maybe Juicy did and asked her to record a reference track. (A just okay hook to go to bat for as an unknown ghostwriter, frankly.) In an era where the world’s biggest male stars snipe at each other about fragments of songs they’ve written for one another, this shouldn’t be a story, but a rising female rapper can’t allow any question of her bona fides.

Even if “Simon Says” is entirely ghostwritten, the Three 6 Mafia homage is far from an aberration in Megan’s catalog, or even on Fever. Juicy J produced two other album cuts, future strip club anthems “Pimpin” and “Dance.” Fellow co-founder Project Pat contributes to “W.A.B.,” built around a sample of the group’s “Weak Azz Bi**h.” Three 6’s influence is apparent in so many strains of modern hip-hop, but on Fever Megan places the Memphis collective alongside Houston and New Orleans in a firmly Southern context. The album concludes with Megan declaring herself “Hot Girl Meg from the motherf**kin’ South,” and it doesn’t feel like a conclusion, just a tantalizing cliffhanger promising further misadventures.

Fever is not perfect. “Best You Ever Had” strays a little too close to pop. Halfway through an album of knocking beats, it’s jarring to hear Megan’s voice coated in electronic sheen, sharing space with a recorder loop. In headphones the project becomes a bit repetitive in the back half, but it won’t be noticeable blaring out of club speakers. Given how quickly she’s befriended so many other stellar young female rappers, it would have been great to hear her spar with some of them on her debut.

Nevertheless, Megan Thee Stallion is picking up the baton for Southern hip-hop with a quick tongue and trunk rattling beats optimized for twerking. She inherited the legacy from her mother, as well as an unstoppable work ethic, the kind that kept her from cancelling shows even after her mother’s tragic death this spring because “I know she wouldn’t want me to stop.” Not long ago, a buzzy mixtape rapper signing to a major label like 300 Entertainment was a one-way ticket to clunky albums overstuffed with radio bait. Fever’s cohesion is a testament to Megan’s talent and dedication. Look forward to partying with Hot Girl Meg all summer.

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